Thursday, March 1, 2012

Retire Or Release

So the Steelers are releasing WR Hines Ward today, the inevitable but still sad end of a 14-year career all spent in the same laundry. He says that he's still coming back for a 15th year -- I guess he wants one of those Bad Idea jerseys in his closet for later, or just doesn't want to stop hitting people -- and I suspect someone will give him a job, even if it's just to ask him questions about "Dancing With The Stars" or how to cripple defenders with blocks.

Does he make it to Canton? It's hard to see why not. Thanks to some late-season charity throws, he ends his tenure here with 1,000 catches even, 12,083 yards and 85 receiving touchdowns, which even in the swirling sands that are receiving stats in an ever pass-wackier age, seems like they'd be good enough. Ward seems bitter about it today ("This isn't how I wanted this chapter of my career to end"), but honestly, it's hard to see how a team is supposed to carry a fourth or fifth wideout that can't give you anything on special teams. For pure value, he's got to be one of the best draft picks in club history (3rd round, Georgia, 1998), and while he never really had the foot speed to be considered an elite threat, his all-around game was second to none in his prime.

I think he gets in for a couple of reasons. First off, because he's the kind of WR that people who hate WRs like -- aka, physical, delighting in blocking, played through injury. Pittsburgh is one of the most public teams in the NFL, and Ward was in an immense amount of playoff games. His numbers weren't inflated by a pass-happy offense, indoor games, wretched divisional defenses or a forced #1 status. And while his peak never got him to the status of a top five star or defenses that keyed on stopping him first above all other threats, that isn't to say that he wasn't valuable. There is, after all, considerable reason why his teams won a lot more than they lost, and he leaves with some rings.

But more than anything else, there's the simple fact that he was memorable. Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter and Terrell Owens and Isaac Bruce all leave with more numbers in everything, but they didn't win more than Ward, didn't sell as many jerseys to guys that will wear it forever, and didn't make any number of announcers and old-time fans smile from ear to ear as he laid out some DB with a borderline at best hit. He was the kind of guy that you loved if he wore your colors, hated if he didn't, and never, for a minute, doubted that he was a reason why that laundry won. And given the rule changes in the game now, and the fact that throwback guys are never as prevalent as you might remember, we aren't very likely to see his like again...

Or, at least, not for 15 years in the same laundry.

He'll fill Canton in a few years with an awful lot of people that Ohio won't welcome very much. Just like, well, the other 15 years that he worked here...

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